Experimental Reviews

Subordination: Body Image III (2020) – 3.5 stars

Director: László Gálos

Writer: László Gálos

Cast: Syporca Whandal, László Gálos

Running time: 9mins

Why do we take a photograph as an accurate representation of an event when we know the image can be easily manipulated to distort a reality? Is a photograph a fiction and, if so, what is the nature of the relationship between the ‘still’ and the ‘movie’ as a concatenation of stills? Are we hardwired to inevitably map and categorise when we are presented with the naked body on film? Why does the possession of a penis or a vagina embed in our consciousness an assumption of gender? These questions interweave through our present social discourse and are addressed in László Gálos’ timely meditation on photography.

Subordination: Body Image III is a collaboration between Gálos, a photographer, and Syporca Whandal, a conceptual artist credited as ‘Model’. The film has no dialogue, while the soundtrack – scored by Whandal – is constructed from machine noises of varying intensity. Set in a white walled exhibition space which conveys this is going to be ART, the naked figure of the Model enters the space and takes up position kneeling on a plinth. The film tracks their movement, and, from the side shot, we start to categorise the figure as ‘female’.

The extravagantly bearded Gálos then joins us in his role of Photographer, and busily sets up their apparatus of exotic photographic equipment with glass and metal trays for a liquid development process – a process known as collodion, which Gálos’ director’s statement says he has used almost exclusively since 2015. Once the equipment is set up, the Photographer approaches the Model and extracts a bottle of dark liquid from the Model’s vagina, returns to their equipment and adds the liquid to the development fluid. The Photographer again approaches the Model to retrieve a second bottle, this time sealed in a plastic bag. Again, the vial’s dark liquid is added to the development fluid. We are then shown the development, the image coming into being under the swirling liquid.

At first, the image is red and resembles some weird sea creature abstraction, but it soon reifies into a sepia tinged image of the Model; more precisely detailed, but with a penumbra of outer limbs. The camera then tracks out to the plinth, up the Model’s thighs. We are then confronted by a penis, the foreskin of which a pair of hands suddenly clips a plastic bag containing two bottles with dark liquid to. Moving up the hirsute abdomen to the head and shoulders, the realisation presents itself that this is the body of the Photographer. The image of the Photographer is then shown centre screen against a white background whilst 33 lapidary epigrams on the nature of photography (beautifully translated into English by Attila Sebok) scroll gently up from bottom to top of the screen. Most pertinently, in view of the transformation from Model to Photographer, we are instructed: Every image is a lie, and Only the Photographer stays forever locked into the image. As the final epigram disappears leaving just the Photographer’s image, we cut to black for a few moments: the end of Subordination: Body Image III.

The film is a truly subversive piece of work, one which left me disturbed and reflecting on the questions it poses for some time after first viewing. These focused on my confusion and inchoate reasoning as to my perceptions of gender. The trompe l’oeil of the track from the developing image to, what I had assumed to be, the Model’s body up from the male genitalia to the image of the torso and face of the photographer is magnificent. For me, this is the key moment in the work. My self-interrogation ran: I had categorised the Model’s body image as ‘female’ why then did I assumed the scene was a continuing portrait of the Model even after I had seen the attached penis? Should I have noticed that the hands that clipped the package to the foreskin were probably not those of the Photographer? Why was I struck by the fact that the ball bag and member were not an entry point or receptacle? Between fact and fiction: why was I making the quotidian speculation as to whether the Model had both bottles of liquid in their vagina or the second bottle had been inserted in between shots? I greatly appreciated this subversion of roles.

A familiar trope in films about the making of art concerns the vulnerability of the naked model in contrast to the fully dressed artist; yet here we have the artist and model on liberatingly equal terms. Although, the timbre of the piece is on the surface uncompromisingly sombre (enhanced by the challenging noise attack of the soundtrack) I detected some playfulness. The introspection prompted by the film is compounded by the fact that in reality, the only way to fully appreciate the text meditation is to pause the film (something impossible if viewing it in a theatre): producing one’s own photograph and then be admonished by the line “a photograph does not stop time”. As the viewer attempts to read the lines of text in real time, they either have to view a line directly above the Photographer’s genitalia or below them as they half conceal the line in between which is in one’s direct line of sight.

I was disappointed by two aspects of the film: the repellent, confrontational soundtrack, and the decision to shoot the development of the images sequence in dark shadow. Presumably, the latter was in order to give an atmosphere of a mysterious, Blakean alchemy to the Process. I felt this came across as obscurantist, and worry it might merely serve to frustrate viewers who are already struggling to invest in the film. As for the soundtrack, maybe this is also de rigeur when we are doing ART – but I fear that by taking these two approaches, Gálos and Whandal have in effect ghettoised the piece and placed it in the world of High Art. If that is the case, it is a great pity, the film’s subversion of convention on gender and body image deserves the wide audience which might have been reached by a low down, dirty Universalist approach.

You will have noticed the number of question marks in this review. Subordination: Body Image III commendably made me question my reasoning/belief systems on gender and body image as well as my thinking on truth/fiction of the image. Gálos and Whandal are both accomplished artists and in this case they have produced an important work that will no doubt be well received as a video installation in the world of galleries. However, I will end with a final question: with a less elitist approach could they have made a whole lot more people ask a whole lot more questions?

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